Tuesday, May 24, 2011
100 Books 27 - Jane McGonigal's REALITY IS BROKEN
Jane McGonigal is one hip chick, in ways I thought I was too but find that I really am not.
It's a strange and vaguely disappointing thing, being confronted by one's own un-hipness. I feel very connected and in touch via my amazing Twitter feed, which consists for me essentially of a thousand or so friends constantly on the watch for cool new stuff, disturbing news, ideas, breakthroughs, constantly saying "look at THIS, you guys!"
But somehow about 90% of the games and idea implementations McGonigal talks about in Reality is Broken are ones of which I had never heard before. This stuff has been right under my nose, just a click or two away from virtual places I frequent, and I've been all but wholly ignorant of it! How in the world did that happen?
Partly, I suppose, it's because I'm kind of crap as a gamer. I'm of that generation that came of age alongside video games, but missed out on a lot of the early years due to geographical and cultural isolation. My middle school had A personal computer, an Apple IIe over which a handful of us (and only a handful; most of my schoolmates, mercifully, were profoundly uninterested in it) fought, in order to get a few minutes on it to play, e.g. a crudely animated arithmetic game in which we destroyed very abstract asteroids by entering the correct answers to math problems. Someone out there probably knows the name; I don't remember. But so while so many of my present-day friends were sitting in their parents' dens and basements playing Zork and teaching themselves to program, I wasn't. This is not a complaint; I had a fulfilling if vaguely old-fashioned childhood, but it was in Wyoming, where it was still the 1950s except with modern cars and (eventually) cable TV. And the one arcade video game down at the 7-11, which the bigger, drunker kids usually were hogging.
I've done my best to make up for lost time since then, of course. Fast forward to the present and I have an Xbox360 that I break out every now and then for a spell -- I game in binges. When I find something I really like, say, the Oddworld games, I play the hell out of it, sometimes forgetting to go to bed; my days off disappearing into the game world, leaving me a semi-delirious shadow of myself when it's time to resume my day gig. It's bad for me but since I live alone there's little to keep me from doing it except for old-fashioned self-discipline, which resource I'm currently channeling into other endeavors, so, bottom line, I don't play very often. And because I'm a cheap bastard in certain ways, I'm also a few cycles behind the cutting edge as far as new games; my friends are all raving right now about L.A. Noire while I'm sort of desultorily poking at Alan Wake, for example (desultorily not because I don't dig the game, but because I've got a lot of pressing demands on my time just now and can't afford to disappear into that world for hours or days like I do).
But hell, I pay attention. I know what L.A. Noire is and that it's going to be a hell of a lot of fun to play when I get around to it.
But somehow, I had never heard of most of what McGonigal is talking about in this book.
Reality is Broken is that rare thing, a positive polemic, arguing that gaming in general and video/computer games in particular are far more a force for good than for degradation and sloth, as most of the popular press still likes to portray them. The statistics she cites about how much collective time and energy we expend playing these games are staggering and at times both im- and oppressive, but, being a game designer herself, a gamer herself, and someone who has made it her responsibility to forecast the future and find our best possible outcomes, she does not decry the spreading bottoms, the carpal tunnel, the (mostly-bogus) claims that these games desensitize us to violence and rudeness and misogyny that are all the cliches that arise when most writers tackle the subject of how we all seem more interested in interacting with pixels than people.
Rather, she argues that it's best that we accept that this is how we as a species like to spend our time; it's not going to change short of some kind of brutally oppressive regime exterminating the game industry, taking away all of our toys, and exercising superhuman powers of surveillance and invasiveness and every other dystopian police state tactic to suppress the black market that would inevitably arise. We like to play. You can whine about it and wring your hands, or you can take it as a starting point, accept it as a fact of humanity, and find a way to work with it to achieve a much nicer future.
These games, she argues over and over again, are nothing more than a massive, decentralized, somewhat anarchic training program for the future. We are all the Last Star Fighter, except no external force has crafted the simulation that is testing us; in playing these games we are eternally bootstrapping ourselves forward. It's a nice thought.
I won't waste anybody's time summarizing the argument she constructs; plenty of reviews and columns and essays have already done so. For this blog and this series I'm more interested in documenting my experience of reading these books I've chosen. I will say that I found her arguments more persuasive than not*, and have been delighted at all of the discoveries she has led me to, like FreeRice (a vocabulary game in which each correct answer results in a donation of ten grains of rice to an anti-hunger project) and PlusOneMe (a sort of social media site that allows users to "plus one" other people in a wide range of categories to reward their real-life performances in the fashion of stats boosts in video games) and Investigate Your MP's Expenses (in which a British newspaper turned the tedious chore of sifting through a million pages of Parliament member expense reports to find the kind of essentially fraudulent reimbursements elected officials were making to themselves into a massive, crowd-sourced game), to name three. That lots of game designers, players and enthusiasts are doing exceptionally exciting and creative things was never news, but that so many are trying so hard to harness our inherent fondness for tackling unnecessary obstacles, our hunger for real engagement, to improve real life kind of was, to me.
While this has been thrilling, however, in a very real sense reading this book has also felt weirdly depressing. As she makes her argument about the inherent attractiveness of gaming, she contrasts it with the meager offerings of the real world, our "broken reality" which does not easily offer us focused and achievable goals, satisfying work, chances to be adventurous and heroic, measurable feedback on our accomplishments and failures, and many other things positive psychologists have highlighted as keys to feeling that life is really worth living. Which is to say she is constantly reminding us that real life as it is constructed now is really rather a sad and dull affair, disconnected, hopeless and meaningless, a reservoir of near-infinite human potential going to waste. And all the problems we face: climate change, dwindling fossil fuel supplies and slow progress towards replacing that resource, threats to the food chain, poverty, economic crises -- the list is long, and the litany appears over and over again as she talks about the kinds of problems she is sure we can solve if we tap into this weird resource we've bootstrapped ourselves into creating with games: a huge population of people eager to collaborate, brainstorm, imagine and, above all, work (for as anyone who's spent hours and hours trying to beat a modern game can tell you, gaming is totally work).
And I'm convinced that what she is proposing can happen, though not through games alone. It can happen because of what we are making of ourselves with technology, the connections we are forging every day, the hive mind we so like to joke about but all have come to rely on. Our biological evolution may seem to be stalled but our evolution as a species has left us unrecognizable to our ancestors, after all; what would even our great grandparents make of us walking around, Bluetooth headsets in our ears, talking to thin air, pulling gadgets out of our pockets to look at and laugh and get excited and participate in arguments great and small. We are becoming telepathic with technology, with consequences marvelous and yes, sometimes a little ugly (forum trolls, anyone?). The potential is there and it is manifesting in more remarkable ways every day. But we're still at bottom jumped-up hominids with brains that are messy evolutionary kluges, and so to tap all of this potential we basically have to trick it: we have to turn our world into a game if we're going to save it and be happy.
Why the hell not?
*She hooked me in right away with an example from Herodotus, in which a famine in ancient Lydia was in part addressed via games: the kingdom mandated that every other day would be a fast day in which everybody played games, immersing themselves so entirely they would not notice their hunger pangs, and so passed 18 years and the society survived. I've always loved that story (hell, I love Herodotus period) and that she used it as one of her first supporting examples grabbed my attention like perhaps nothing else would.